I slammed the apartment door so hard my vintage LP recording of Beethoven’s Eroica (Bruno Walter conducting) skipped several groves. But, yes, I did remember Peter S. Michaels, Assistant Principal at Middlesex High School from twenty-six years ago. He’d put on weight, especially in the face, was more round shouldered and stooped, but I never forget a voice, especially his.
“Derek. It’s me, Mr. Michaels, from your old school back in Massachusetts. I want to talk to you about what happened back then.”
I leaned against the door. My Beethoven record had righted itself and the French horns were laying the thematic groundwork for the grand finale.
“Derek, I came a long way. I want to make amends. I’d do it through the door, but a little privacy would be better.”
I live on the top floor of a three-decker on Trowbridge Street in Portland, Maine. My neighbors on the first and second floor barely speak English so through the door was fine by me.
“Please, Derek, five minutes, and I’ll be out of your life forever.”
Forever sounded good. I slid the bolt, turned the knob and ushered him in.
Twenty-six years ago I was flying high. I was finishing up my third year teaching English at Middlesex High School (Go Panthers). The administration had granted me tenure. I’d earned a PhD (American Studies) earlier in the year, and now taught two sections of AP Literature plus three other advanced classes. Plenty of paperwork and prep time but no classroom discipline issues. Beth Schnoover and I were now a serious couple. We were looking at apartments to share. She taught third grade at Squannacook Elementary in the next town; no scholar but a nice personality, cute face and great body. We were planning a three week summer literary tour of England’s Lake District. “Top of the world, Ma,” as Jimmy Cagney proclaimed in White Heat. And, just after those immortal words were spoken, he was blown to bits. Little did I know but I, too, was sitting on a powder keg.
One of my ancillary duties at Middlesex High was Senior Class advisor. It came with a $900 stipend. It was only natural to dovetail that responsibility with the Senior Prom Committee (another $400). Throughout the year we had several fund raisers: baked goods at basketball games, flower sales during major holidays, spaghetti dinners and car washes. I didn’t really keep track of the money. At the end of every event, I made a quick count and handed it to Denise Delaney, the class president. She took it down to the office where it was put into the appropriate account in the school bank. If I needed any supplies or had expenses, I wrote a check drawn on whatever account. I had no idea how much was in the bank. I had a rough “guesstimate” that it was probably between four and five thousand. In early May the VFW needed a $1500 deposit for the upcoming prom at their facility. The caterer wanted the same. I wrote out the checks and sent them off. They bounced.
That’s when I found myself in Principal Hall’s office answering, trying to anyway, where the money was. Miss Delaney, lower lip quivering, and having seen enough Law and Order reruns to recognize that she, as low man on the totem pole, might be the fall guy in this matter, swore she gave all cash to Mr. Michaels for deposit. But there was less than two hundred in the account now, and, at its maximum throughout the year, there had never been more than $500. Denise and I both swore that that we’d handed in much more than that, our donkey basketball game alone had netted at least $1100 in ticket sales and snack bar revenue.
Peter S. Michaels claimed he’d never gotten that much at any one time. He thought $250 was the most he’d ever gotten from the envelopes I forwarded to him.
Of course the school ran riot over the idea that there would be no prom. Dr. Hall called an assembly and was made into a folk hero by announcing that, no matter what, he’d come up with the cash. The senior prom would happen, and it would be the best ever (cue raucous cheers).
I was immediately put on administrative leave from my classes and advisory duties. Police came to the school and interviewed me twice. Several seniors were questioned. On Monday of the third week in May my world exploded. Acting on a tip, the school computer in my room was confiscated. Files containing teen and kiddie porn were found. A search warrant was issued for my apartment. Nothing on my home computer, but in the back seat of my RAV 4 were porn magazines and DVDs of children involved in unnatural acts. I was cuffed and taken away.
I was arrested and went to trial. If I pled guilty to misappropriation of public funds and paid it back ($5500), there would no jail time for that charge. As to the porn, if I pled guilty, eighteen months jail time (out in less than a year with good behavior) and classification as a Level One sex offender rather than Level Two or Three. Needless to say, forfeiture of my teaching certificate and no contact within 500 feet of a school or anyone under eighteen was also stipulated. I didn’t have $5500 for restitution (forget about bail), and with no family or friends stepping up (Beth left me the day the porn was found) to help I was doomed to the county lockup. The best I could come up with was $1700. That didn’t cut it with the judge so a year was tacked on to my eighteen months. On June 25 I entered the Henry Babbitt, minimum security wing of the Massachusetts Correctional Facility in Shirley, Massachusetts, my home for the next thirty months. Incidentally the Babbitt wing is devoted to those inmates legally classified as sexual offenders: deviants, predators, serial rapists and me.
I had plenty of time to think. Therapy wasn’t very helpful for me because I was innocent. It was like receiving treatment for cancer—radiation, chemo, etc., but I DIDN’T HAVE CANCER! The weirdest I ever got in the bedroom department with Beth was talking her into a little oral sex foreplay. I’m sure she closed her eyes and thought of England during it, specifically the cozy bed and breakfast Lake District vacation we had planned.
After three months of negative prison staff reviews on my counseling progress, I decided to play their game. I let my sexual imagination run riot in group therapy. Yes, self realization is the first step in recovery. You want someone addicted to porn, you got it.
I mulled the embezzlement issue over nearly every waking moment. I usually gave the cash a rough count and either ran the envelope down to the office myself or had Denise do it. Barbara Tyler was Mr. Michaels’ secretary. If I gave it to her, she’d put it in her middle drawer. If I gave it to Pete, he took it, often commenting politely on what a nice fund raiser we’d had. If it wasn’t me or Denise who took it, it had to be Barbara, Pete or some thief in the office who went into her desk. But I’d only given her the envelope on a couple occasions. Denise and I, ninety percent of the time, put it in Peter Michaels’ hand directly.
In the prosecutor’s office Peter looked me straight in the eye; “Sorry, Derek, the most you ever gave me was two hundred and thirty-one dollars. That was for the bake sale at the job fair last October.”
But who else could have skimmed off the top? And then I thought about who could have had access to my classroom’s computer and knew what type of car I drove (which, like a dope, I never locked)? Judging by the man darkening my doorway after all these years, I was soon to find out some of the how and why.
I judge visitors by what they say about my apartment. If they compliment my taste, I know they are lying and give a grain of salt to everything they say after that.
Michaels extended his hand. I refused to shake it. He recovered, gave a quick look around, “Nice place you have here.”
I pointed to the couch. Three bricks took the place of a missing front leg so there was a five degree list on the port side. My wall-to-ceiling bookshelves are pine boards supported by more bricks depending on how high I wanted the shelves. An end table rescued from curbside trash pickup with a colorful African themed blanket over it serves as a TV stand. The recliner is my reading spot, centered the proper distance from two large speakers from which the Beethoven record had ceased filling the room. The walls are decorated in very colorful African folk art and weavings. The room is not nice; interesting maybe, but never nice. In fact the entire building is not nice and the neighborhood (as will be explained later) completes the not nice at all tableaux.
I have two rocking chairs. I took one of them and turned it to face Michaels as he sat dead center on my rump sprung couch.
“I suppose you’re wondering why I’m here?”
I said nothing.
“Irene and I are moving to Florida in a month, Port Orange which is just south of Daytona Beach. I retired from the district last year. I hit sixty-five. I’d put away money in IRAs and other retirement vehicles. I’ve had a gambling problem for years. Irene found a coupon on line for Edward Jones investment advice and took our portfolio to an advisor in town. She found out that I’d tapped out most of what we’d put away for the sunset years to feed my gambling habit. She walked out on me. The only way I could get her back was to enter a program—Gambler’s Anonymous. It’s like AA only for people who bet. I’ve been going to it for a year and a half. I haven’t played cards, even Go Fish with the grandkids, or placed a sports bet in all that time. They give you this token after a year.” He opened up a briefcase he’d brought with him, rummaged around and offered the copper colored coin for my inspection. I waved my hand at it in disinterest.
“Part of my recovery is tracking down people I’ve hurt and making amends. I’ve still got a ways to go with Irene. We’ll see how Florida goes. At least she’s agreed to go with me. My kids have been great. I’m here today to make amends to you.”
“Then it was you that took the class money and blamed it on me?”
“It was a rotten thing to do, I know. I used to play cards with a group every Tuesday night, penny-ante poker. I thought I was pretty hot stuff. So much so I quit the local Tuesday nights and drove to Foxwoods casino for higher stake games. Sometimes I’d win decent pots, but other times I’d be in the hole. You were so lax about the fund raising money that I saw an opportunity. I thought I could pay it back by the time the prom came around, but I hit a bad streak.”
“And the porn?”
“Dr. Hall and the superintendent were on the cusp about your guilt. Many kids came to them vouching that you were a stand up guy. I needed something to make them think you were the type who could steal from kids. I bought some smut and downloaded onto your room computer. I salted the car as well. I went to your apartment, but it was locked and any break in would be discovered. I trusted there was enough evidence to put only you in the spotlight.”
“What do you want from me, forgiveness because they gave you a stupid coin?”
“I know what I did was wrong. I rationalized that you were young and would overcome it. I didn’t think there would be jail time. The superintendent was talking restitution. Who knew you were so broke. And I thought the porn would be a slap on the wrist, a warning or a temporary suspension, but the DA, Bill Coughlin, wanted to send a message. He was positioning himself for a crack at the Lieutenant Governorship so that’s why he and the judge came down so heavily on you. I know you can never find it in your heart to forgive me. Believe me, it took a lot of guts to drive up here from Massachusetts. I checked into the Holiday Inn by the Bay and took a cab here. My sponsor at GA, Ed Joyner, used the internet to find you. I guess you’ve moved around a lot since your release.”
I spent twenty-two months, one week and four days in prison. I got no tattoos, did not dedicate my life to Christ and remained straight. Once I “admitted” my guilt to my counselors, I took a job teaching other inmates how to read and write. My GED skills course was a big hit. Upon release, they sent me to a halfway house in Manchester, New Hampshire. I was required to register at the police station. I landed a job delivering pizza.
I finished the mandatory time at the halfway house and was free to go wherever I wanted. I chose Lewiston, Maine because it sounded like it was out in the middle of nowhere. It was. I registered with the police as required and got a job as a short order cook at a dive called Tiny’s Eats. I lied on my application stating that I’d actually worked as a short order cook at the Manchester Palace of Pizza.
The polarizing topic in Lewiston at the time was the influx from Somalia in what was termed (bless sociologists) “a secondary migration.” They had originally settled in Clarkson, Georgia, a location that seemed close to the climate they had come from. However the mayor and other folks in Georgia didn’t want them and made life difficult. So governmental powers supported a move to Lewiston, Maine, a place where no one knew of or cared about Somalia. Perhaps the subliminal context was that the climate would be so alien they’d go back to where they came from.
My part time job at Tiny’s was not the most intellectually stimulating. I yearned for something more. At the Maine Department of Employment and Training there was an opening for an ESL teacher. The organization needing such was the United Somali Women of Maine, USWM. I was cleared by the probation people as well as the sex registry crew. I’d be working with adults, recusing myself if anyone under eighteen showed up to the three nights a week classes.
There are Somalis and then there are Somalis. My lot was cast with the Bantu, a minority ethnic group originally brought to Somalia as their slaves way back when. They are different from ethnic Somalis, looked down upon by the native population. During an African revolution in 1991, they fled to refugee camps in Kenya and were massacred in such large numbers that it made for great viewing on the nightly news. Enter the USA State Department and their long boat trip to Clarkson, Georgia. To real Somalis the Bantus are considered “sheegato,” pretenders.
I identified with the Bantus. My own life was that of an exile. Some of my Somali students had been what passes for professionals in their so-called homeland. I, once upon a time, had been Dr. Derek Fraley, PhD in American Studies. Now I was teaching Bantu immigrants prepositional phrases and how to shop at Wal-Mart.
Gradually the friendly welcome the Bantus received in Lewiston grew less so. Groups like “America for Americans” took full advantage of any petty crime, school violence or welfare fraud that involved the Bantus. Organizations associated with “true” Somalis threw public relations stones at the Lewiston ghettos that were predominantly Bantu. That’s when a few leaders of USMW and I began thinking of relocating. Portland, Maine became our home.
Trowbridge Street is the center of a four block area--Dobbins Ave to the north, Kilbride to the south. A majority of the neighborhood is inhabited by my people. There are only a few whites in the district. I am one. I have the status of a tribal chief. Crime, especially involving young men, is an issue. Though I am accorded a certain status, I would not walk the streets at night. I run several community programs. I am an ombudsman for the Bantu cause. I am a frequent visitor to the public schools, registering students or dealing with problems of those already enrolled. I still run my ESL classes as well as hooking up with Legal Aid staffed by U Maine School of Law students to handle many issues that immigrants face.
I am fifty-two now. My Sex Offender designation of Category 1 expired five years ago. In that sense I am a free man. I receive a modest stipend for my services in the community. Not unlike a minister or priest, my third floor apartment is gratis. I rarely want for food as the women of the area see that my kitchen is well stocked with their local cuisine. The issue of female companionship has raised its head many times. Back in Lewiston there was a very attractive Bantu lady who was fond of me, and the feeling was reciprocal. I discovered, however, that by selecting one, I alienated many others resulting in heightened tension. As such, with the many single mothers (and not so single) over forty, I flirt but remain above the fray of intimacy.
If I practiced Christian charity, I suppose I would have gone to Peter Michaels, given him a hug and forgiven him for ruining my life. As it was I only wanted to watch him squirm, torturing him until he admitted that the only reason he came was to check off a form his sponsor had given him and receive another token, perhaps silver this time, for facing the man he destroyed.
“Do you have a bathroom, Derek? I have prostate issues plus I always have to go more when I’m nervous.”
I pointed. “Though the bedroom and on the right. Switch is on the outside wall.”
While he was gone, I took a quick peek through his briefcase. There was a phone, Maine roadmap, and a pamphlet on Gamblers Anonymous. There was a manila folder stuffed with papers, but I heard him flush and zipped back to my rocking chair.
He came back, face washed and what little hair he had slicked down. “I see you like African art, very colorful.”
There would be no polite chit chat. “If you are truly sorry for what you did, I’d like you to write up the details of how it went down, your role in it, my complete innocence, and we’ll have it notarized.”
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“What’s not good about it! You took my life away. You see where I live, not exactly the lap of luxury here in a neighborhood anyone who knows Portland would tell you to stay out of. I don’t make enough to file an income tax. Until a few years ago, every move I made I’d have to register with the police. My name and address is still up on the local sex offender web site. I’m not married and don’t date. It’s tough to explain to any decent woman, not to fear, I was only a level one sex offender. I’ll bet even you don’t know the difference.”
He got up, shut his briefcase but not before pulling out the GA pamphlet. “I’ll leave this with you. It tells about the program I’m in, the steps involved. I’m really sorry. Many nights I’ve lain awake regretting what I did to you.”
“Would it surprise you to know I’ve taped this entire conversation?” I hadn’t, but theatrically I held up my Samsung Galaxy phone.
He slumped back down on the couch and looked towards the front window. “I came here in good faith, Derek, and this is the thanks I get. It’s money isn’t it, compensation for the trouble in your life.”
I got up, went to the couch and stood over him like a matador ready to strike the fatal blow. “Does it look like I care about money?” I swung my hand in an arc to better survey the room. “I’d just like to clear my name. Maybe go back to Massachusetts, walk into the high school with my head held high.
“I don’t think the phone recording of what I said is legal, wouldn’t hold up in court. So it would be your word against mine.”
“We live in a world of media frenzy--TV, radio, newspaper, blogs—all waiting for something juicy. And what about your family, the good people of your home town, the school department from which you retired to say nothing of the folks in the Florida complex you’ve bought into?”
I saw him flinch when I mentioned “family.”
“Does Irene, she of the thin ice marriage you’re in, does she know what you did to me? Your grandkids?”
“I think what’s happened to you in life has made you unbalanced, twisted; you’ve become vengeful, obsessed. You won’t be happy unless you’ve destroyed me and everyone around me, will you?”
I backed away before I choked the sanctimonious life out of him. “I think we’ve each had our say. Now you can live like I’ve been living, looking over your shoulder every waking moment.” I shoved the phone at him once more as a visual aid. “You’ll never know when I’ll use your confession.”
He opened his brief case and took out his own cell phone. “I need to call a cab. Do you have a number or a directory?”
“It’s past seven, dark out. No cab will come to this area.”
“That’s not fair; they’re supposed to serve the public.”
“You’ve heard of the Italian North End in Boston or New York’s Chinatown. Well, this area is known as Little Mogadishu. Ever seen the movie Blackhawk Down or read about Somali pirates capturing ships?”
“I’m stuck here with you?”
“It would only be for the night. When it gets light, cops, welfare workers and cable guys brave the area, in pairs of course. You can use the couch. If you have time, you could write up and sign a confession. The other alternative is to walk four blocks to Arundel Avenue. There’s a bus stop plus a corner fried chicken joint that could offer you refuge until the bus shows up. The Metro runs about every forty minutes until ten.”
He grabbed his jacket from the bench by the door where I’d tossed it. He was between a rock and a hard place. He’d chosen the rock. “Does the bus driver make change; I only have twenties.”
“The chicken place will break it for you if you buy something, but I’d advise you not to flash your wallet.”
When he got to the door, he turned. “If taking my reputation makes you happy, I feel sorry for you. I’m an old man, sixty-six, so I’ve only got ten years if you believe the national averages for men.”
“It’s quality of life, Mr. Michaels. You’ve had yours. I’d like a taste. And, tell your sponsor there are some things in this world you can’t apologize for. Can you imagine Hitler telling the Jews how sorry he was for murdering six million or Joe Stalin for however many lives he took?”
I debated whether I’d shake his hand if he offered. He didn’t, having been rebuffed before. I opened the door and saw him out. “When you go out the front door, turn right then take another right, that’s Hamilton. Stay on it until it hits Arundel. Most of the street lights are out. I’d keep to the center of the road.”
I watched him from the front window. He stood on the sidewalk. I could tell he was hesitating. Were my directions a ruse that would lead him further into some primordial heart of darkness? Should he do the opposite?
I could make a quick call to the Too Bads. Every area has its gang, ours was the Too Bads, a double edged sword from my perspective. If there was a house fire or someone needed help moving, I’d call Korfa and his boys would help out. They were also a local police force after a fashion, but they were like a domesticated wild animal, one never knew when they might revert to their lawless ways. I could easily text them and suggest they “take care” of Mr. Michaels; that term was relative and depended on the mood they were in—a mere mugging versus being kicked to death with body to be found later either scattered around the city or as an aggregate whole in the harbor. He turned right clutching the brief case as if it were body armor.
I closed the curtain. I felt good. For years I’d been the presumed or alleged innocent victim. Now I was an official, card carrying innocent victim. And it didn’t matter if the rest of the world knew. Rather than having Michaels “taken care” of right now, I’d sleep better knowing that cards and notes I could send at various times of the year would, like a reoccurring cancer, regurgitate his past crimes. Let him spend retirement with a knot in his mid-section, jumping every time the phone rang or the mail contained a letter with a Maine postmark. And I’d never been to Florida! Oh Damocles, wherever you are, I salute you, or, as my Somali people say, adigaa ku xiga wacal-- you are next, you bastard!
D. E. Fredd lives in Townsend, Massachusetts. He has had over two hundred short stories and poems published in literary reviews and journals. He received the Theodore Hoepfner Award given by the Southern Humanities Review for the best short fiction of 2005 and was a 2006 Ontario Award Finalist. He won the 2006 Black River Chapbook Competition and received a 2007, 2009 and 2010 Pushcart Nomination. He has been included in the Million Writers Award of Notable Stories for 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2010.